Last week, Apple has launched the M1 chip based Macs. Apple has been making their own chips for iPhone and iPads for a few years now, but the M1 marks Apple’s debut in making their own chips for the Mac.
But the M1 has been making waves for far more impressive reasons than just being Apple’s debut chip. M1 has surprised the world for the performance and battery life jump that it has managed to achieve. This article from AnandTech describes the technical specifications of the surprisingly high performance of the M1 in detail.
Apple Silicon is no doubt a game changer for Macs. But it has far wider implications — just like the iPhone disrupted the mobile phone market in 2007, the M1 is poised to disrupt the ripe and stagnant consumer desktop/ laptop computing market.
The infamous ‘wintel’ might be a term of the past, now that most consumer computing has shifted to mobile phones, but for those who remember the 90s — the term ‘wintel’ stands for Microsoft Windows+Intel, and was notorious for using their market dominance to stifle competition & slow down innovation.
Even though the mobile phone became the central computing device for most people, wintel had retained it’s dominant position on desktops and laptops. As a result, the desktop computing market has stagnated in terms of performance and innovation, while the mobile market has boomed. Advancements in the desktop market are credited to cheaper & faster RAM & better GPUs more than the processors.
While Microsoft has updated Windows to adapt to the age of cloud and mobile, Intel remains pitifully behind on groundbreaking advancements.
The first big competitor to Intel
AMD has been making waves for the past few years with their latest generation processors. In the past, AMD CPUs were the best options for the entry level and budget categories of the market. Often plagued by heating issues, AMD was no threat to the market dominance of Intel. All that changed with the launch of the Ryzen 3000 & Ryzen 5000. AMD now had offerings to cover the entire spectrum, not just the budget category. Performance was substantially better than Intel, with prices same or lower than Intel. AMD is now becoming a serious competitor to Intel with the launch of the Ryzen 9 5900X and 5950X, which is beating Intel in every benchmark at it’s price point.
As a result, AMD has started gaining market share at the expense of Intel in the desktop computing market.
The launch of the Apple Silicon has added one more dimension to this competition between AMD and Intel — software.
The Apple M1 CPU is based on ARM architecture, different from the x86 and x64 architectures that current Intel and AMD processors use. ARM CPUs have been in the market for a long time and ubiquitous as the smartphone CPU, ever since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. But this is the first time that ARM processors have been touted as mainstream desktop / laptop processors.
ARM on the desktop is the Innovation
The rise of the smartphone brought ARM processors into the mainstream. Because of the use case of the smartphone, the software required by them was markedly different than that required on servers and desktops.
The software for smartphone had to be optimized for touch rather than the (much smaller) mouse pointer. The screen size was smaller, so the UI had to be adapted accordingly. And most importantly, multi-tasking took a back seat.
On the desktop or laptop, the work environment is completely different — there are multiple windows open simultaneously. There are usually multiple tasks being executed in the background. People are able to use multiple programs and tools simultaneously. In short, desktop is useful for performing multiple tasks by running multiple softwares, simultaneously. This is what the x86 Intel CPUs are considered proficient in, for both Windows and Mac OS. Since desktops are always connected to power, battery management is not an issue. For laptops, most business laptops won’t last an entire day on battery.
The smartphone on the other hand, is designed for using one application at a time. Even today, the ability to use two applications at the same time is a feature that works best on the flagship smartphones only. For smartphones, battery life is an important issue as well. Most people are able to charge their phone only once a day, and it needs to last them until they’re able to charge once more. ARM chips are perfect for this kind of usage — balancing battery life and the (one app at a time)performance for the smartphone.
Apple M1 brought the best qualities of the two architectures together — the multitasking abilities of x86 and the efficiency of ARM, through Mac OS. And the M1 was born.
Apple is know for it’s tightly integrated hardware and software. The M1 chip is able to outperform the x86 architectures in terms of performance and still provide a battery life unheard of yet in laptops, because of this tight integration. Mac OS has opened the doorway for developers to update their desktop software to run better on ARM.
Apple is known as a market disrupter for a long time now. iPod was the first global market disruption by Apple — it completely changed the way people listened to music. Next came iTunes, completely changing the way people purchased music. After that came the iPhone, paving the way for technology and internet to become a very essential for people in their day to day lives.
When the iPhone launched, all the other companies scrambled to come up with products that could at least come close to the experience that the iPhone offered. Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, realized that Google will have to rethink it’s entire Android strategy on the day the iPhone launched. Companies that did not rapidly adapt to compete with the iPhone, like BlackBerry, Nokia, etc., rapidly vanished from the larger market. As a result, we have only two big players in the smartphone OS market today — Apple and Google.
The M1 Mac is the iPhone moment of the desktop / laptop. The competitors will jump to make similar chips, looking at the performance and efficiency jumps that the M1 Mac has shown. If they can even achieve half of that, they will have a competitive edge.
Windows vs Android on Desktop?
Since Android run on ARM based smartphone already, it will run directly on any ARM based desktops that come up. Android has an entire ecosystem of apps ready, from games to productivity to social media. Combined with a UI like Samsung Dex, Android could well become the next desktop operating system.
Windows will need some catching up to do, since Windows 10 currently does not have a fully functioning ARM based version. Not to mention the software portability. Most software on Windows 10 has been written and designed to work on x86 processors, which will not directly run on ARM chips. Microsoft needs to enable developers to port such software to ARM chips easily and effortlessly if it has to maintain it’s current desktop lead.
The future is exciting
The smartphone technology that changed the world will most likely change desktop computing next. From professional video & image editing softwares, productivity tools & workplace softwares, to games and social media, the desktop as we know it will cease to exist in the next few years.